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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

When A Sign Is More Than A Sign

There are many different types of signs. The thesaurus on my computer indicates that when the word "sign" is used as a noun it can refer to a “symbol, signal, trace, omen or notice.” Leaders at any level provide signs to followers whether they intend to do so or not. Followers often examine the actions of a leader as a reflection of organizational culture (as Deal and Kennedy, authors of Corporate Culture define as ‘the way we do things around here.’) in a manner similar to the interest people have in forecasting weather before making plans outdoors. It goes beyond what a leader says. It’s about what a leader does. The role of a leader simply magnifies the impact of one’s actions as a beacon of sorts to the organization.

Research has consistently suggested that people learn more by what they see than by what they hear. When you combine the intent of the sentences you’ve already read in this Blog entry then you can surmise how important it is for a leader to be cognizant of what signs they emit through their actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up by stating, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

The first omen regarding my work as the new superintendent of the Green Island Union Free School District appeared on the first day in the leadership position back in July of 2010. It involved a symbol that was intended to broadcast the notice of an imminent cultural shift in the school system.

During a guided tour of the school in the last stages of the district's search and selection process, there were signs in the parking lot designated for the three school administrators serving the district. Since the building is located in a densely populated, city-like environment, space is at a premium and the parking lot on school grounds is insufficient to accommodate the entire staff. Approximately one-third of these parking spots enjoy the benefit of being covered by the school structure overhead. Other than the three spots reserved for administrators, which were under the protection of cover, all other staff members competed for the remaining parking spots on campus on a first come, first served basis. On blustery cold winter days with snow or sleet, or days of torrential downpours, or blistering heat, staff members really competed for a parking spot in the school lot. Those arriving after the lot filled up experienced the weather elements from a more distant and inconvenient walk wherever they could find space on the street lined with other parked cars in a residential area with few garages.

After being hired for the position of superintendent, and before my first day on the job, I contacted the head custodian and requested that he remove the sign designating a parking spot for the superintendent. This surprised the secretary to the superintendent and I subsequently explained to her that there was no need for any preference in parking for the superintendnet. If I desired a prime spot then I would have to get to school early enough to get one, like everyone else.

It’s difficult to engender active participation and empowerment of people if you adopt and sustain a position of aloofness and distance based on a title. Gandhi proposed that one must, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” While there is no denying that my role as superintendent grants me more responsibility and a bigger paycheck than others in the district, there is no need to accentuate or exaggerate differences with an autocratic or egocentric symbol of authority such as a designated parking space in a premium location of the small parking lot.

Similarly, language represents a key sign as well. It’s a challenge to promote professional growth, collaboration, and a collegial learning community among staff members if the leader casually and frequently uses terms like, my staff, my teachers, my school,… By removing the sign designating my parking spot, it sent a message to all staff members. One doesn’t receive entitlements, nor are they ‘given’ respect, they must earn what they seek and offer respect.

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